Few legal principles inspire more confusion than copyright law. Our copyright lawyers often spend as much time educating our clients as we do digging into their specific legal issues. Copyright law, like other intellectual property rights, is inevitably fact specific. Obtaining legal advice about your specific situation from a qualified copyright attorney is critical. Educating yourself about US copyright law so that you understand what your lawyer is telling you is just as important.
Copyright infringement is the unauthorized use of material that is covered by US copyright law, in a way which violates one of the copyright owner's exclusive rights, such as the right to reproduce or perform the copyrighted work, or to make derivative works. A copyright holders exclusive rights include the right to: reproduce the copyrighted work; prepare derivative works based upon the work; distribute copies of the work to the public; perform the copyrighted work publicly; and display the copyrighted work publicly.
In order to prove a copyright violation of these exclusive rights under U.S. law, a copyright holder copyright holder must show that he/she is the "owner" of an original work and a prima facie case for infringement. Ownership of a copyright is established by showing "authorship" of an original work fixed in a tangible medium - articles, books, pictures, movies, musical recordings, etc. The person who created the original work is the copyright holder. A copyright holder may 'assign' the copyright to a third person, who then has all the exclusive rights of the original author, including reproduction, performance or the making of derivative works. The issue of who actually owns a copyright is one of the most overlooked and oversimplified issues. Some employers assume they own copyrights to their employees work. Employees and independent contractors sometimes incorrectly assume that they own work prepared for third parties. Ownership issues need to be identified and clarified early. Simply claiming ownership or an original work and registering the copyright may leave your copyright registration open to attack at a later date when rights are being asserted.
US Copyright laws help define the basics of copyrights. Section 17 U.S.C. § 102(a) provides: "Copyright protection subsists, in accordance with this title, in original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression, now known or later developed, from which they can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated, either directly or with the aid of a machine or device." An idea is not copyrightable , although it might be patentable. Expression of an idea in a fixed tangible form (i.e., in written pages of a book, on a CD, on a web page, on canvas, as a printed photograph) affords the possibility of copyright protection. While these principles sound complicated, an experienced copyright lawyer can help you understand whether you can copyright protect your original work and receive the protection which copyright law affords.
Infringement occurs when a third person copies the copyright protected work. Unauthorized copying is proved with direct evidence (sometimes copying is obvious or admitted) or inference (not surprisingly, infringers often deny copying). Circumstantial evidence of copying is often important to show infringement.
Registration of a your original work with the US Copyright office is not required for you to have common law rights. However, registration is often critical for enforcement and must occur before filing an infringement suit in Federal Court. Our copyright lawyers often receive calls from authors of original work who failed to register their works before learning of infringement. This can be a critical mistake making enforcement challenging or impossible.
Copyright claims are on the upswing as the internet makes 'copying' as easy as the click of a mouse. Original works are harder than ever to protect. Luckily, innovations in technology makes tracking infringement almost as easy as unauthorized copying. But you aren't protected if you are not monitoring. Owners of original works need to understand how to register their works, as well as how to track on-line infringement in order to maintain their value as the author.
Enrico Schaefer is a copyright lawyer, specializing in intellectual property matters and on-line protection. Go to his web site to learn more about US copyright law for a free consultation, as well as the particular problems presented by on-line infringement.
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